eileenanddogs

Month: August 2013

6 Ways I Messed Up My Dog’s Targeting

6 Ways I Messed Up My Dog’s Targeting

Targeting done right! --credit Marge Rogers
Targeting done right! –credit Marge Rogers

Hand targeting is usually suggested as a great behavior for new clicker trainers since it is easy to get and easy to define criteria for.

I guess I didn’t read the brochure carefully enough because I messed up hand targeting for one of my dogs six ways from Sunday!

From time to time I share in the blog mistakes I have made in the past, Continue reading “6 Ways I Messed Up My Dog’s Targeting”

Shut Down Dogs, Part 1

Shut Down Dogs, Part 1

I recently wrote a post about the phrase “calm submissive” as promulgated by Cesar Millan.

I said that the phrase (actually Cesar) was misguided and confused. Not to mention wrong.

For Cesar Millan, “calm submissive” means, “I can do stuff to this dog and it won’t react.” It is equivalent to what we would call “shut down.”

And we can easily see what that portends for most dogs. “Calm submissive” is emphatically not about teaching a dog to relax or be calm. So today I am going to talk about the real state that many dogs are in when they seem to go really quiet: shut down.

A Group Delusion?

One of the things that repeatedly surprises me is when I see the “big-name” force trainers Continue reading “Shut Down Dogs, Part 1”

But I Want to Use All the Tools in the Tool Box!

But I Want to Use All the Tools in the Tool Box!

Have you heard the one about the toolbox?

This is the sixth in a series that details and rebuts fallacious arguments against force free training. Today’s erroneous argument is directly related to “But Every Dog is Different!” in that it claims that training without punishment (certain “tools”) is just too limiting. But since it centers on the potent metaphor of the toolbox, I’m treating it separately.

OK, about that metaphor. Naturally, I went and got a public domain graphic of a toolbox for an illustration. Here it is.

Toolbox
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thought experiment. Is this really a good metaphor for our methods when training dogs? Tools for cutting, prying, banging, twisting? Yipes!

This led me to do a little research. It may well be the great trainer and author Terry Ryan who originated the toolbox metaphor with her two books, “The Toolbox for Remodeling Your Problem Dog,” and “The Toolbox for Building a Great Family Dog.”

The blurb for the “Remodeling” book says,

The toolbox is a set of principles and practices you can use to analyze and address any behavior problem you encounter.

She goes all the way with the building metaphor in those books, with chapters on raw materials, building supplies, the foundation, etc. But I think something really interesting has happened.

Ms. Ryan’s metaphorical toolbox was a “set of principles and practices.” The metaphor caught on, but started to change a bit. The expression came to mean a set of training methods. Get the difference? That’s a little narrower and more concrete. Methods rather than principles. And finally, nowadays for many trainers, the tools they are referring to are often, well, physical tools. Gear including correction collars of various sorts.

I personally may be done with using that metaphor–if only I can think of something else!

Who’s Got a Bigger One?

But on with the discussion. First, I would wager that the average trainer who relies mainly on positive reinforcement and negative punishment already has a much bigger toolbox than someone who uses aversives. The aversive “tools” (for instance prong and shock collars) are pretty one-dimensional. Not that they can’t be used with more or less skill. Sure they can. But as I’ve mentioned before, it takes no special expertise or devotion to figure out how to hurt an animal. Countless Joes and Joannes on the street have figured out how to do it.

But trainers who seek to use positive reinforcement would already have a big toolbox to begin with, and if they found the dog difficult to motivate, the onus would be on themselves to expand it. They would be working hard to find all possible wholesome motivators for their dog, with the goal of getting reliable behavior with a happy dog, free of fear and threats. So this image of the big gleaming toolbox with certain wondrous tools “off limits” for force-free trainers is not accurate.

Please see “But Every Dog Is Different!” for an expansion of this point.

Are you back? Great!

See if you think the following logic holds.

(Almost) Everybody Has A Limit

I propose that the problem with a force or balanced trainer saying, “I don’t want to limit myself to only certain parts of the toolbox like you do”  is that in almost every case there is another trainer further down the line who can say that to them.

I put forth that almost every trainer knows about some aversive techniques they will not use. It is not only the force free trainers who ignore certain sections of the huge fictitious toolbox. Most trainers have their limits.

I would guess that most balanced trainers would not use Koehler’s method to remedy digging: filling the hole with water and holding the dog’s head under. Neither would most use a method I read about in a bird dog training book on teaching the dog to hold steady:

“You’ll need your checkcord, a choke or spike collar, and an assistant who is strong enough and willing to jerk a dog over backward with the checkcord at the proper moment…  When he hears the shot and sees the bird fall, the dog will break. Don’t say a word, and be sure your assistant remains silent but braces his feet and gives the dog the somersault of his life when he hits the end of the check cord.”–Ultimate Guide to Bird Dog Training, Jerome Robinson

You certainly could find people who still do these things.  A quick perusal of YouTube can show these methods and worse. But even for those trainers–there might be a method they wouldn’t employ.

Next time a trainer says they want “access to every tool in the toolbox,” try asking them whether there is any method in the world they wouldn’t use. If they need prompting, you could name some. The point is not to be aggressive about it.  The point is that you might get across that it is not at all “limiting” to avoid methods that don’t fit into your ethical stance. Especially when your “toolbox” is gloriously full and varied already.

If someone uses the toolbox metaphor to you, I think you could get in some really interesting discussions if you asked them why they don’t employ certain methods. Doesn’t the same metaphor apply? If it breaks down, then why are they saying it to you?

A Different Metaphor?

Like I said above, the toolbox metaphor is much too entrenched to fight. But for me, the more I think about it the less it fits. Besides the harshness of the idea of applying hardware to dog training, the whole tool thing fails to highlight the mutual learning that goes on between a trainer and a dog. I’m really not as interested in sculpting my dog into some ideal as much as I am interested in that magical partnership that is born when we learn together.

So I thought about it. I tossed aside “cornucopia,” “toybox,” and “treasure chest.” My new metaphor is a “bag of tricks.” And it’s a bag that my dogs and I can both open.

Photo credit: Kenneth Rivenes. Thanks Kenneth!  http://www.flickr.com/photos/sprengstoff72/3294941579/
Photo credit: Kenneth Rivenes. Thanks Kenneth! http://www.flickr.com/photos/sprengstoff72/3294941579/

This post is part of a series:

Thanks for reading! Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Calm Submissive

Calm Submissive

According to the well known TV personality (I won’t call him a trainer) Cesar Millan, “calm submissive” is a very desirable state for your dog to be in.

A small dog is lying on her right side in the dirt. Her legs, belly, and face are tan. She is black elsewhere. Her legs are stretched out in front of her and her head is on the ground. At first glance she looks relaxed, but her front legs are actually stiff and one is being held off the ground.
Is Zani calm? Check out her left front leg before you decide.**

OK, I don’t even want to begin to address the word submissive. So far I’m just thinking about “calm.”

Here is a dictionary definition:

Free from excitement or passion; tranquil.

A black dog with tan on her face and front legs is seen to be sitting. She is looking down.
Zani shut down

My friend Diana and I were discussing seeing the difference between a shut-down dog and a calm dog. I have some video footage, soon to be published, of Zani in a shut-down state. (It was long ago and she had been rude to little Cricket, who snarked at her. For whatever reason, that time it upset Zani greatly. She shut down and tuned the world out for about half an hour afterwards.) Diana said it would be great to contrast the shut down state with photos or video of Zani when she is calm, so as to help demonstrate the difference.

So I started thinking how I would film Zani being “calm.”

First of all, I realized calm is not a behavior. It is an emotional state, but it can sometimes be observed by physiological signs. I would say they include:

  • slow to moderate heart rate
  • slow to moderate breathing
  • relaxed muscles or muscles being used smoothly
  • lack of signs of arousal or excitement

I tried to list positive signs first, but it is easiest to see calm as a lack, yes? Like the definition: free from excitement. In a dog we might notice:

  • lack of barking
  • lack of panting
  • lack of excitement
  • lack of trembling
  • lack of running around
  • lack of jumping on people or chewing the furniture
  • …ad infinitum.

Calm as Contrast

I’ve also realized that in English, “calm” is frequently used as a contrast word. What picture does the following sentence bring to mind?

Henry calmly got out his wallet and removed his driver’s license.

What did you visualize? I bet 9 out of 10 people visualized Henry being stopped by a police officer. The word “calm” in such a sentence would be emphasizing that Henry is cool under pressure, and/or innocent of any law breaking.

Did anybody visualize Henry lying on a couch, watching TV and drinking beer, reaching idly into his wallet to take a look at his license or show it to his girlfriend?  <<crickets chirping>>

Yet even if Henry were a really coolheaded guy, he would probably be much more calm in that situation than when being confronted by a police officer.

The more I think about it, the more examples I can think of where “calm” is used to in a situation where there is something exciting or stressful going on. “Julie was calm in the face of danger.” “David is calm under pressure.” We even say that dogs give “calming signals.” They are generally stress indicators.  Calm is usually noted as a (desirable) reaction to something stressful. Whereas the word relaxed, though related, describes a physical/mental state only and doesn’t necessarily imply as much about the surrounding environment. So it’s kind of hard to photograph “calm.” It’s comparative.

a sable colored dog and a smaller, black and tan dog are on the top step of a porch. They are both looking to the left. The sable dog's commissure is pushed a little forward. The smaller dog is just looking.
Zani and Summer look at a cat

Here’s a “calm by contrast” photo. Summer and Zani are looking at a cat. Summer is starting an agonistic pucker of her mouth and is standing up. Zani, by contrast, is sitting. She is watching attentively but not braced as readily for action. She is more calm than Summer. But is she “calm”? Maybe about as “calm” as Henry was when taking his driver’s license out for the cop.

Calmness in Dogs

At first I couldn’t decide whether to say Zani is calm most of the time or never. In a dog as well adjusted as she is, one tends to take a certain amount of calmness for granted.

But actually, living with Zani around the house, I would rarely call her demeanor “calm.” She’s either asleep, or she is active. When she’s interacting with the other dogs or me she is alert, in the game,  responsive, high energy, even wired. And it was pretty telling that I couldn’t find many pictures or videos in which she looks “calm.”

We Glupling Trainers tend to work on calmness with dogs for whom overstimulated emotional states are a problem. In other words, it’s for their benefit at least as much as it is for ours. My dog Summer is reactive. My dog Clara is feral and also easily overaroused. These dogs need help being calm. So we practice things like Dr. Karen Overall’s Relaxation Protocol and straight relaxation, as in this video I made with Clara.

I’ve always been sure Zani, like any dog, would benefit from those exercises, but frankly, it hasn’t been high on my list. That is, until I recorded a bunch of footage of the dogs doing crate and mat exercises this morning. From watching the recordings, I saw that I have probably underestimated the stress in Zani’s life. Up till now, I haven’t worked on calm with her because she is a trouble-free dog for me. I’m feeling a bit like a self-centered jerk after watching that footage. Some dogs are amazing for putting up with us at all. She is very sensitive. But that’s a topic for my next installment.

Here are the “calmest” pics I could find of Zani, but in the ones where she is cocking her head, she is working me for a treat. She tends to snap to attention when I get the camera out.

Cesar is Confused

Isn’t that a nice way to put it?

Cesar often calls dogs “relaxed” or “calm submissive” when they are motionless but frightened out of their wits, as indicated by trembling, stiffness, rolling eyes, or the release of urine. You can see him do that in this video analysis of “Showdown with Holly,” if you can stomach it. At 3:19, he says, “See the relaxation.” I think he says that basically because Holly is lying down. It’s clear when the camera turns her way that Holly is far from relaxed. But Cesar is not famous for his ability to read dog body language.

For Cesar Millan, “calm submissive” means, “I can do stuff to this dog and it won’t react.” It is equivalent to what we would call “shut down.”

In contrast, the most important state for my dogs to be in, at any time, is “happy.” After that, I value alert, responsive, cooperative. Excited some of the time, calm when appropriate.

As I write this, Zani is sprawled at my feet in the position I call “flounder,” as in the very first photo at the top. She’s lying flat on her side with her head down. Is she calm? No. She is completely alert, offering that funny behavior, trying to get me to give her a treat. And that’s perfectly OK with me. For now. But I need to observe and analyze just how much of the time she is “working.” Maybe I, too, have been  guilty of assuming that a dog that doesn’t bother me is “calm” a lot more often than she really is.

I really thank Diana for her part in helping me to see this.

How about you? Can you define “calm”? How would you take a picture of it? Have you observed or filmed your dogs being calm?

Thanks for viewing! Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

** A note about the first picture. This is not an appeasement display. But neither is Zani relaxed. She is offering that behavior because she thought it up and I have reinforced it. You can see that she is holding her right front leg stiffly out from her body. Her eyes are staring straight ahead and not soft. She is working for a treat.

What You Reinforce is What You Get

What You Reinforce is What You Get

A tan dog with black muzzle is looking out from between two wooden steps. Her mouth is open and she looks very happy. Next to her on the step is a beaten up yellow tennis ball.
Clara and her ball

Bob Bailey said, “What you click is what you get.” There is a lot of wisdom in this simple remark. Among other things, it emphasizes to me that we don’t always realize exactly what we are marking and reinforcing, but the animal always does. Or rather, the animal’s actions reflect it.

Since I rarely use a clicker, my version is, “What you reinforce is what you get.” This is still a challenge to keep in mind sometimes. I tend to fail at holding my criteria steady, and it shows in the overly wide range of behaviors I tend to get from my dogs. Plus, putting something on an intermittent reinforcement schedule (reinforcing it inconsistently) makes the behavior really persistent. Not a good idea to do that to a behavior you are trying to get rid of!

So let’s see what that all this looks like. I’m going to share with you all one of my bumbles. I have a video where I can show first what I reinforced purposefully (and successfully). Then I show the dog doing what I subsequently reinforced carelessly. It happened to be very close to the behavior I had been trying to fix in the first place. My dog shaped us almost back to where we started!

I wrote in my crossover story that a turning point for me was when I learned that an animal’s behavior is a map of what has been reinforced. (Punished too, now that I think of it.) You can see the changing landscape in the movie.

Letting Go of the Ball

Clara is my first truly ball crazy dog. I love it. It’s so fun to see that pure passion; how completely thrilled she is about playing ball. She loves it so much, actually, that she has a rather hard time giving it back, even though she lives for me to throw it. She loves both chasing a ball and having a ball.

Eileen is seated on a short stool and Clara is lying on the floor. They are looking into each other's eyes. There are some training props on the floor.
Clara practicing “put it in the bowl”

I published a movie last year, Retrieving to a Container, about how I solved her problem of reluctant releases. I did this with the help of my trainer friend and also a great YouTube tutorial. I trained Clara to fetch the ball and drop it in a container instead of putting it in my hand, which was so very hard for her. (She will fetch just about anything else in the world to hand, from paperclips to poop,  just not a ball. With the ball, she approaches since she really does want me to throw, but then she usually does that head dodge thing when I reach out. Just c a a n ‘ t quite give it up.)

I could have stopped everything and worked hard and gotten a ball fetch to hand, but the container thing was an elegant solution that would also build us a new foundation behavior. And it removed most of Clara’s conflict about releasing the ball.

I tried teaching my other dogs as well, and Zani took to it right away. So now I had two of them who would drop things into a container.

Zani has a knack for getting in on the fun, wherever it is. So when I would get out the rubber balls and the container, she started barging in on Clara’s game. Clara is good natured about things like that, and I’m a sucker, so now there were three of us. Zani started to pick up the ball if Clara dropped it short of the bucket. Zani would grab it, drop it in the bucket, and I would give her a treat. (Told you I’m a sucker. She even got me to feed her.)

Experienced trainers are smiling now. With Zani’s help, I exactly undid the behavior I had trained. Clara and I play with two balls, so I can throw the second immediately when she delivers the first. The throw of the ball reinforces the previous behavior. So when she started dropping the ball short of the bucket and letting Zani finish the job, she still got reinforced by another throw. It didn’t matter that I was waiting for the ball to hit the bucket, since she wasn’t performing that part of the sequence. So she reverted to her natural behavior of tossing the ball down in anticipation when she got within a few feet of me.

How Eileen’s Behavior Got Shaped

So what about me? Did Clara cause my behavior to change through reinforcement? Yes. Her actions were shaping my behavior. She got me to do two different things. First, when I was holding the container, if she dropped the ball a time or two I got in the habit of reaching out with the container before she let go. I was doing the natural human thing of “catching” the ball with the bowl, rather than being a statue. I got reinforced for doing that since it saved the time of either of us messing around trying to pick it up off the ground. So in this way I also started taking over some of what “should” have been her job, and she got reinforced (again!) for not coming quite all the way to the container. By inches this time, but it only takes that much to miss.

A tan dog with black muzzle and a red ball in her mouth is rushing toward a woman sitting down with a white plastic bowl in front of her. The woman is holding a similar red ball in her right hand, completely covered, and out of sight of the dog.
Take a look at my right hand

Second, she also shaped me to put the second ball out of sight when she approached. Again, she’s so ball crazy that she had a very hard time taking her eyes off the ball I was about to throw long enough to put her own ball in the container. I could have started working on her self control around balls, but instead I  fell into the short cut of putting the other ball out of sight when she approached. This improved her accuracy at the container.

Where to Go From Here

All this makes me sound incredibly sloppy, but I’m going to defend myself a little. First of all, this is recreation. There are some things I put lots of energy into getting just right. Zen. Recalls. Mat work. I am even decent at being moderately precise, as in competitive obedience and Rally. So I cut myself a little slack when we are talking about something that is not life and death important. (Clara disagrees about that assessment, grin.)

Second, with multiple dogs you tend to make little compromise decisions all the time. It was a big plus in my mind that I could play with Clara and Zani at the same time, bizarre as the game was. My bottom line was for them to have a good time and me to be able to not work very hard.

However, the problem with being sloppy in any training situation is that one is changing criteria on the dog.

Changing criteria is unfair without using  clear cues for the different behaviors expected. That’s what cues are for. In this situation, with a different dog from Clara, my behavior might have been more of a problem. Clara is resilient and adaptable, especially when there is a ball involved. When I firmed up my criteria it took her less than a minute to switch from dropping the ball a few feet from me back into taking some care to drop it into the bucket. But it did take a little extinction burst. I try not to get in the habit of creating those!

So in the course of filming and writing about this, I have decided how to fix this situation in a way that hopefully will be more fair to Clara than the current mishmash, and still let Zani participate. I’ve realized Clara is very close to understanding the two different criteria for when Zani is there and when she isn’t.  I can do something to make it even more clear which criterion we are using. I’ll go back to sitting down when I play with her by herself. I think that change, plus Zani’s absence, would make for pretty clear situational cues that it she is in charge of getting the ball into the container.

Link to video for email subscribers.

Also, my friend Marge has challenged me to address self control for Clara around balls. So stay tuned. Finally, for extra credit: why is Zani hanging around me so close when she is part of the game?

And how about you? Have your dogs shaped your behavior? Have you noticed anything amusing that you have been reinforcing? Or noticed slippage into a different behavior as you relax criteria?

Thanks for viewing! Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Copyright © Eileen Anderson 2015

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Dogs Who Are Eating Can Still Be Stressed

Dogs Who Are Eating Can Still Be Stressed

People often say that a way to tell whether your dog is “over threshold” is whether she will eat or not. While this can be a strong indicator, it’s not true 100% of the time.

A head shot of a tan dog with a black muzzle. Her eyes are brown and pupils are dilated. Her ears are pinned back. There are muscle ridges in her forehead. The skin along her jaws is drawn tight. She looks very, very stressed.
Clara is stressed and over threshold

First let’s go over what people generally mean by “over threshold.” In dog (and other animal) training, “over threshold” Continue reading “Dogs Who Are Eating Can Still Be Stressed”

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